How your thyroid could be key to unresolved health issues

International Thyroid Awareness Week is observed annually from 25 to 31 May and is a time dedicated to educating the public about the significant effects that undiagnosed or inadequately treated thyroid disease can have on a person’s quality of life.

Worldwide, 1.6 billion people are thought to be at risk of thyroid disorders, and 1 in 8 women will develop a thyroid disorder in their lifetime.

Many people are unaware that genetic factors can significantly impact their likelihood of developing a thyroid disorder, meaning these conditions can run in families. If you have a family history of thyroid issues, or if you’re feeling unwell and can’t figure out why, it’s important to test your thyroid hormone levels.

Dr Sindeep Bhana, a specialist in thyroid disease and former head of Endocrinology at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, says: “When you’re unwell, it feels like a piece of you is missing. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms that won’t go away no matter what you try, your thyroid may be the missing piece of the puzzle and it is worth getting it tested. Your thyroid gland is probably the most important organ in your body, as it produces essential hormones that regulate the entire body’s metabolism. If you’re struggling with fatigue, weight gain or mood swings, an underactive thyroid could be the reason.”

Thyroid disorders are more common than you’d think, especially in women. By the age of 60, 17% of women and 8% of men are expected to suffer from an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).

The benefits of early detection

Because the symptoms are easily mistaken for something else, thyroid disorders often go undetected for years. The American Thyroid Association estimates a shocking 60% of people with thyroid disorders are undiagnosed, meaning hundreds of millions of people suffer worldwide without knowing the cause of their symptoms. The sooner a thyroid disorder is diagnosed, the better – because once identified, the symptoms can usually be well managed by your doctor.

You can take a five-minute online screening test to find out if you may be experiencing a thyroid disorder. In just a few minutes, you’ll know if you need to talk to your doctor, who can arrange a test to check if your thyroid is functioning normally or not.

Struggling to conceive

For men and women, thyroid disorders can sometimes be the cause of fertility problems.

Clinical evaluations are recommended for all women seeking pregnancy or those newly pregnant. If any of these risk factors apply to you, a thyroid test is recommended:

  • A history of underactive or overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), or current symptoms/signs of thyroid dysfunction.
  • History of head or neck radiation or prior thyroid surgery.
  • Enlargement of the thyroid gland.
  • Aged 30 or older.
  • Type 1 diabetes or other autoimmune disorders.
  • History of pregnancy loss, preterm delivery or infertility.
  • More than two prior pregnancies.
  • Family history of thyroid dysfunction.
  • Residing in an area of known iodine insufficiency.

Thyroid disorders are also a cause of male infertility, since sperm development requires normal thyroid hormone levels.

The good news is that once thyroid levels are back to normal, your chances of getting pregnant can increase.

Identifying hypothyroidism in mature women

With hypothyroidism prevalence increasing in women aged 40 to 50, and during significant life changes such as postpartum and menopause, healthcare providers are urged to consider thyroid testing when patients present with non-specific symptoms like fatigue or weight gain.

Common symptoms such as slowed movement, muscle pain and cold intolerance, along with risk factors like diabetes or a family history of thyroid issues, should prompt further investigation,” says Dr Bhana.

“Remember to share information about your general well-being, symptoms and any other health issues with your doctor. Once diagnosed, managing hypothyroidism with consistent medication can significantly improve patient outcomes and quality of life.”

Taking action

“By being aware of your symptoms and taking a simple thyroid test, you can solve the puzzle of undiagnosed thyroid conditions and break the cycle of repeat visits, referrals and misdiagnoses that have affected millions of patients for far too long,” says Dr Bhana. “With increased awareness and better understanding, we can significantly reduce the burden of undiagnosed thyroid disorders.”

Image credit: Freepik

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